Imagine your pastor or teacher or boss kneeling to massage your feet or clip your toenails. No doubt the very idea makes you squirm. The disciples probably felt such awkwardness when, during a special dinner, Jesus—their beloved leader, who’d performed miracles possible only for God—leaned over and began to wash their filthy feet. What could He mean by this?
To get the most out of this study, read John 13. But first, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into the truth available in this chapter. Give yourself permission to ask questions that may not have answers. Wonder aloud, imagine the scene, and take note of anything that surprises, confuses, or even offends you. Above all, trust the Lord. He’s the best teacher.
Key Passage: John 13:1-17
The Lord knew His time on earth was quickly drawing to a close. Yet, though fully cognizant of the huge price He was about to pay, Jesus saw His final Passover as an opportunity to love His disciples—which He did in a startling and inspiring way.
According to Strong’s Concordance, the Greek oida—meaning “to know, understand, or perceive”—appears six times in this chapter.
John specifically notes that Jesus knew and fully embraced His Father’s plan (John 12:27-28; John 13:1). What connection do you see between the Lord’s awareness of the timeline and His choice to show love by serving the disciples?
According to John 13:3, what three things did Jesus know, and what was His response to this knowledge? Describe how a confident assurance of one’s authority, identity, and destiny in God relates to an attitude of servanthood. Do you see any correlation between the two in your own life?
Think back to the initial image in this study—of your pastor or other leader performing a lowly task for you. With this picture in mind, consider Peter’s reaction to Christ’s gesture (John 13:8). What do you suppose the disciples were feeling as they watched their leader care for them in such a tender, humbling manner?
Remember that Jesus washed the feet of all the disciples—and Judas received such doting attention while harboring his secret about the evil he’d set in motion. What thoughts might have been going through his mind in that moment? And in the moment when Christ handed him the morsel in front of the others, identifying him as the betrayer (John 13:26)?
Consider what Jesus knew as He knelt to wash Judas’s feet. How might you let that challenge the way you think about or interact with antagonistic people in your life? Try to identify any hesitations you may have about serving or praying for people who oppose you. In what way could verse 17 be an encouragement to overcome your reluctance?
You may have heard the expression “Lessons are better caught than taught.” Notice how Jesus drove the point home by using both words and actions. In your case, is it easier to learn from explanations or demonstrations? Why do you think that is? Try to recall something you tried teaching a friend or family member, which might have “stuck” better with Jesus’ approach.
Jesus knew and fully embraced His Father’s plan.
Continuing the Story
It may be common knowledge that foot washing was customarily performed by the lowest-ranking servant in the household. But other details, which are often overlooked, highlight the stunning tenderness and humility of Jesus’ act.
Commentary by David Guzik notes that in first-century Jewish culture, this ritual was to take place before the evening meal was served. Yet John 13:2 says Jesus began washing the disciples’ feet “during supper” (emphasis added). Imagine being in their shoes—having someone you revere wash your dirty feet, which should already have been clean. What emotions rise up in you? Shame? Self-consciousness? Embarrassment? How does this mental exercise add to your understanding of Peter’s strong reaction (John 13:8)?
Guzik’s commentary also reveals that most popular representations of the Last Supper incorrectly depict Jesus and His disciples sitting upright; in fact, they’d have been reclining at a low U-shaped table called a triclinium. Try reimagining the scene this way. How does the disciples’ physical posture emphasize their vulnerability?
Remember that from the Lord’s perspective, this evening was all about loving the disciples (John 13:1), yet it obviously caused some discomfort as well. What does that tell you about the nature of love? Consider examples from your own life—how comfortable are you receiving love? When expressions of love make you feel vulnerable, how do you handle it?
When expressions of love make you feel vulnerable, how do you handle it?
To serve lovingly requires humility, but to be on the receiving end of such love also demands that we let down our guard.
Over the next several weeks, use this section to review the study and consider how its message applies to your life.
Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is perhaps the most celebrated example of humble service in the gospels, but there’s something even more fundamentally beautiful about the scene.
It is when we allow Jesus to come up close to the dirtiest, most unseemly parts of our life that we experience His love in a more intimate way.
Take a look at John 13:8 and notice Jesus’ response to Peter: “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” According to Strong’s Concordance, the Greek word used here is meros, which can mean “part” in the sense of “lot” or “destiny.” With that in mind, what would you say was the primary goal of the foot washing—cleanliness or connection? How does building intimacy require us to expose things about ourselves that we may be most ashamed of?
Notice that it’s Jesus, not Peter, who’s responsible for the washing. If you often attempt to fix your own issues, how does this passage challenge you to trust the Lord instead?
Being loved can certainly make us feel exposed and vulnerable. But it is when we allow Jesus to come up close to the dirtiest, most unseemly parts of our life that we experience His love in a more intimate way. Notice what He said in verse John 13:10: “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean.” How does this relate to salvation and confession (Titus 3:5; 1 John 1:9)? And how does confessing our sins facilitate closeness with Jesus (Psalm 66:18)?
Jesus was training the disciples to carry on the mission in His absence. So He took a command familiar to them all—“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18)—and then upped the ante: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you ... By this all men will know that you are My disciples (John 13:34-35 emphasis added). Sacrificial love is to be the standard for all believers—and, as verse 35 suggests, the way to grow the kingdom.
Illustration by Adam Cruft